Saturday in suburbia: the Repat's election diary

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Picture my friend Anne and me: Two well-educated women in our early fifties, with professional backgrounds in financial analysis and public health. We’re stay-at-home moms to a total of six teenagers. We’re not particularly religious. We both come from that kind of immigrant family that emphasizes education (not inheritance) as the way to get ahead. We drive minivans and feed our kids organic kale. We love Hillary Clinton, hate Donald Trump, and – because we happen to live in the Philadelphia suburbs – we’re the Republican Party’s worst nightmare right about now.

Analysis suggests Pennsylvania might determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and the Philadelphia suburbs could decide who wins Pennsylvania. Nearly 21% of the state’s voters live in four counties surrounding Philadelphia, and we are being showered with attention and inundated with campaign advertising.

Anne and I attended a cocktail party on Friday evening at which Madeleine Albright – America’s first female UN ambassador and first female Secretary of State – made a personal appearance. She talked about her experience working with Hillary Clinton, and it was energizing.

campaign-officeOn Saturday morning, the two of us reported for duty at the local Hillary Clinton campaign office, a small storefront here in town, furnished with folding tables, a random assortment of chairs, and decorated with campaign posters. A couple of campaign workers were there to greet us. We’d volunteered for that most American of campaign activities: canvassing.

To understand what canvassing is all about, you have to understand that Americans are less likely than Europeans to go to the polls on Election Day. In the last presidential election, in 2012, only 53.6% of the voting-age population actually voted. Election results are determined by who shows up. Canvassing means going door to door to encourage people to show up.

Hillary’s local campaign organizer, a 20-something Texan named Chase, gave us a map and a list of about 40 names and addresses in nearby neighborhoods – all were voters registered as Democrats. Our job was to go to each house and try to speak to the person on the list. Had they already decided how they were going to vote? Could we count on their vote for Hillary? Did they need more information about down-ballot candidates? Most importantly, would they be willing to volunteer between now and Election Day to get out the vote (GOTV)?

Several of the people on our list were students who’d gone away to college and no longer lived with their (not necessarily like-minded) parents. One was the husband of a friend. She readily volunteered (and I finally got to meet the new puppy I’d been hearing about). Half the people we were looking for weren’t home.

The neighborhoods had no sidewalks. We parked the car, walked from house to house in a cluster of addresses, and then drove on to the next cluster. Progress was slow, but it was a picture-perfect fall day. As the sun grew stronger, Anne fretted that she should have used more sunscreen. I pulled off my fleece and repositioned my Clinton/Kaine sticker onto my Hillary t-shirt. (Note to self: next time, wear a lint-free jacket!)

Most of those we spoke to were supportive. At one house, we met what must surely be the nicest lady in the county. It was actually her husband who was on our list. “He’s painting in his studio, but you can go knock on the door. I know he’d love to talk to you – he’s very upset about this election.” We followed her directions. Turns out the world’s nicest lady is married to the world’s nicest man, and he’s already volunteering with the GOTV effort.

At another house, the front door was behind a fence that was clearly built to contain a fierce animal. As we wondered how to proceed, a car drove up. The driver wasn’t the guy we were looking for: “That’s my brother. You can go through the gate. They have a dog, but it’s stupid.” Stupid enough to eat us for breakfast? The brother turned out to be a teacher, a solid Democrat, but juggling work and childcare with his wife, no time to volunteer. We could relate.

Four hours and a dozen conversations after we’d started, we returned to the campaign office. We’d recruited three new volunteers – a pretty good haul, we thought. Now, in the middle of the afternoon, the office was a scene of organized chaos. Men with union t-shirts were milling around on the sidewalk outside. People were going in and out, dropping off canvassing packets and picking up lawn signs, some of them speaking Spanish. Inside, kids from the local school and their mothers were all over the place, eating pizza and making phone calls to registered Democrats. Chase was grinning from ear to ear: “These kids have made 500 phone calls!”

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